The ’80s – and, by extension, ’80s songs – can sometimes be viewed as if they were all some big, fabulous kitsch experiment, in which everybody dressed up ridiculously – big hair, scrunchies, power shoulders – and all music was cartoonishly OTT, be that the daft excesses of hair metal, the stygian gloom of goth, or the bouncy good cheer of synthpop.
Let’s be honest: all those things did in fact happen, and for the most part they were great. They form a big part of the joy of listening back to the decade that had a booming nostalgia industry attached practically the moment it ended.
But the ’80s was about so much more than the sum of its eccentricities: there's a huge difference between ‘an ’80s song’ and ‘a song from the ’80s.’ This is the decade that gave us peak Prince, Madonna and Michael Jackson, that launched Public Enemy and NWA upon the world. New Wave stalwarts like Talking Heads and Devo found new grooves while transcendent artists like Marvin Gaye and Paul Simon offered up some of the best work of their careers. Electronic innovators like New Order rewrote the rules of music. And as the decade wore on, rap’s early ripples turned into a tsunami that changed the face of pop music forever.
In compiling this list of the very best of the decade, there was a lot to consider: lasting impact, cultural relevance, actual musicianship, catchiness, coolness and, of course, nostalgia. But mostly, we curated with maximum enjoyment in mind while limiting the list to one song per artist. From genre-defining works of genius to ear-worm flights of fancy, these are the best songs of the ’80s. And don’t get your scrunchies in a bunch: some hair metal definitely snuck in.
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